Lion Islet, one of Taiwan’s offshore islands, is a few miles from the Chinese city of Xiamen.
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- China continued its rapid military modernization in 2021, increasing the size and quality of its armed forces.
- That expansion comes amid heightened tensions with Taiwan, which Beijing vows to reabsorb, by force if necessary.
- Taiwan is modernizing its military, but data compiled by the US Defense Department shows that China’s advantage is only growing.
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait intensified in 2021. China’s military flights into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone more than doubled last year, and in the final days of December, Taipei and Beijing warned each other against crossing any red lines.
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has said it is confident that it would be difficult for China to pull off a full-scale invasion, and the US Department of Defense’s most recent report on China’s military, released in November, says China “appears willing to defer the use of military force” against Taiwan, which it views as a breakaway province, as long as it thinks that unification can be negotiated and that the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits.
But the Pentagon report, which covers developments in 2020, also contains three charts that show defending Taiwan from such an invasion, at least in a one-on-one fight, would be a daunting task.
China’s military, known officially as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has a clear numerical advantage in troops, ships, and aircraft. Those forces are improving as the PLA continues its modernization efforts, and despite Taiwan embarking on its own military modernization, China’s advantage has only grown in recent years.
A growing imbalance
Chinese Type 052 guided-missile destroyer Harbin, left, and Type-956EM destroyer Ningbo, right, during a China-Russia exercise off of Shanghai in 2014.
The charts, labeled “Taiwan Strait Military Balance,” show the estimated totals for China and Taiwan’s ground, naval, and air forces.
They are divided into three categories: total PLA strength across its five theater commands, the strength of Eastern and Southern theater commands (which the report says are expected to play direct roles in an invasion), and the total strength of Taiwan’s military.
The Pentagon notes that the 2021 report “applies a new methodology” for these charts that may lead to “significantly different numbers” than in previous years but that they don’t “necessarily reflect a sudden change in capability.”
A Chinese army BTR-80 armored personnel carrier competes at Russia’s 2017 International Army Games.
Sergei OrlovTASS via Getty Images
The first chart, which covers the ground forces of both countries, shows a total PLA strength of 1.04 million troops (10,000 more than in 2019), with 416,000 — 4,000 more than in 2019 — stationed in the “Taiwan Strait Area,” which the report says includes the Eastern and Southern theater commands. By comparison, Taiwan’s ground forces amount to 88,000 active-duty personnel.
The PLA added 700 artillery pieces, increasing its total in the Taiwan Strait area to 7,000. The PLA’s 6,300 tanks is the same total as in 2019, as is Taiwan’s total of 800 tanks.
China’s navy vastly outnumbers Taiwan’s, with many of its ships are assigned to the Eastern and Southern theater navies.
Those theater navies have 21 of China’s 32 destroyers, 41 of its 48 frigates, 33 of 56 diesel-powered attack subs, and four of six nuclear-powered ballistic-missile subs. Those fleets also have 49 of China’s 57 medium landing ships and amphibious transport docks, as well as one of China’s two aircraft carriers.
Chinese naval jets under the PLA Eastern Theater Command take part in a combat-training exercise in Zhejiang Province, January 14, 2021.
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By comparison, Taiwan’s navy only has four destroyers, 22 frigates, and two submarines. Taiwan has 23 Coast Guard ships in service, a fraction of the Chinese Coast Guard’s 223 ships.
China’s air force (PLAAF) and naval aviation force added 100 fighters in 2020. The PLAAF now has 700 fighters, 250 of its 450 bombers/attack aircraft, and 100 of its 150 special-mission aircraft — such as electronic-warfare, reconnaissance, cargo, and tanker planes — stationed near Taiwan.
Taiwan’s air force has 400 fighters, no bombers/attack aircraft, and 30 special-mission aircraft.
A Chinese Type 99 tank at the 2017 Army Games in Russia, July 29, 2017.
Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images
The PLA’s numbers are not the only source of concern. China’s military as a whole is modernizing and fast becoming a first-rate force.
The PLA’s ground forces, marine corps, and airborne corps are increasingly mechanized, boasting modern armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles like the ZBD-04, ZBD-05, and ZBD-03. China’s armored force is now mostly comprised of modern tanks like the Type 96, Type 99, and Type 15.
China’s navy (PLAN) is “largely composed of modern multi-role platforms,” which feature modern electronics and vertical launch systems (VLS) for missiles, according to the Pentagon.
A Chinese Type 055 destroyer.
Photo by Artyom IvanovTASS via Getty Images
The backbone of the Chinese surface fleet, the Type 054A-class frigate, is armed with a 32-cell VLS, while the Type 052D-class destroyer features 64 VLS cells.
The PLAN’s newest addition, the Type 055 destroyer, has a total of 112 VLS cells; its sizable armament has led the US military to classify it as a cruiser.
China’s eight Type 071 landing platform docks and three Type 075 amphibious assault ships also represent a greater amphibious-assault capability.
The ranges of Chinese missiles in relation to Taiwan.
US Department of Defense
Of China’s 1,800 fighter jets, 800 are considered fourth-generation, and China has dozens of fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighters.
Those jets, which the US military says are eroding its “longstanding and significant” advantages, also carry some of the longest-range missiles in service in the world.
China’s missile force is the largest and most diverse in the world, and it can cover all of Taiwan, with Chinese navy ships able to fill in any short-range gaps.
A Taiwanese navy corvette during a drill ahead of the Chinese New Year, January 7, 2022.
Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Taiwan is also modernizing its forces. Only able to buy military equipment from the US, the island has announced $23 billion worth of purchases since 2010 — more than $5 billion in 2020 alone.
Taiwan is replacing its old M60A3 and CM-11 tanks with 108 M1A2T main battle tanks. It continues to field the indigenously developed Clouded Leopard wheeled armored vehicle, and a new variant with a 105 mm cannon is in the works.
Taiwan is also purchasing 11 M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and 400 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which, when added to its own sizable missile arsenal, will enable long-range strikes against the Chinese mainland and targets at sea.
A Taiwanese Air Force F-16V operates on highway during a anti-invasion drill, May 28, 2019.
Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images
In November, Taiwan announced that 66 of its 141 F-16s had been fully upgraded to the F-16V standard, one of the most modern F-16 variants in service. The remaining 75 fighters are expected to be upgraded by 2023, when Taiwan will receive the first of 66 new F-16V Block 70 fighters.
More recently, in the first sale by the Biden administration, Taiwan purchased 40 M-109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzers and 1,698 Precision Guidance Kits, which convert artillery rounds into precision munitions.
Taiwan also plans to build eight submarines. It began construction of the first boat in November 2020 and hopes to have its first one delivered by 2025.
A Taiwanese soldier launches a Javelin missile during an exercise in southern Taiwan, May 30, 2019.
SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images
While Taiwan’s military may be outnumbered by the PLA, Taipei likely won’t have to face an invasion alone.
The US has not directly committed to Taiwan’s defense, but in recent months US officials have repeatedly indicated that it would support the island if it was attacked.
Japan has also indicated that it’s preparing to back up the US and Taiwan in such a contingency, as has Australia, which is also increasing its defense capability as a direct response to China’s military expansion.